A career behind venue's curtains

An employee since 1977, Merriweather Post's manager knows the pavilion's value.

April 03, 2005|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Jean Parker has been working at Merriweather Post Pavilion since 1977, when she started selling popcorn there a month before graduating from Mount Hebron High School. She's been there full time since 1983 and has been its general manager since 1987.

So she knows - probably better than anyone - just how important Merriweather is to the community.

"Merriweather attracted people to Columbia in its early years, and many migrated to raise their families in this ideal environment," Parker said. "The community grew up around the venue."

She added: "Merriweather is a unique business and a tremendous tourism asset to the county and region. It is an unparalleled community asset."

Parker cares deeply about Merriweather and believes it will remain in Columbia for a long time, though its future is uncertain. Merriweather's owner, General Growth Properties, wants to develop the land surrounding it. At the same time, the company has put the venue up for sale.

In mid-March, a citizens panel recommended that the county buy Merriweather and preserve it as an open-air venue, the first significant step toward determining its fate. Before that could happen, General Growth would have to agree to sell and drop its insistence that the venue be converted into a smaller, enclosed facility.

Parker, of course, cannot predict the future of the amphitheater, which opened in 1967, but her long history with Merriweather gives her perspective. Rumors of its demise seem to crop up at least once a decade, she said.

"Merriweather can coexist with the pending development," Parker insists. "If everybody wants to work together, I feel strongly that Merriweather will be here."

She noted that there are only 45 comparable outdoor amphitheaters in the country, some with markets of fewer than 1 million people. Merriweather draws from 8 million potential music-lovers in the Baltimore-Washington region and brings a lot of money into the county. If Merriweather didn't already exist, somebody would want to build it, she said.

"It is here, and it's profitable, so why not preserve this rare commodity?" she asked.

Merriweather's administrative offices are in a former farmhouse; the conference room is where the kitchen used to be. On a recent weekday, less than a month before the earlier-than-usual season opening, Parker, who lives in Woodbine, wore corduroy jeans and a Fair Isle sweater.

Everywhere, the walls are covered with autographed black-and-white photos of musicians. Joan Baez. Jimmy Buffett. Paula Abdul. Al Jarreau. Third Eye Blind. Phish. Bob Dylan. Liz Phair. The Indigo Girls.

Parker has met them all and can tell some stories. Like the time in 1996 when a storm knocked out the power just before Ozzy Osbourne was going on stage. "The crowd patiently sat for over 90 minutes without incident while BG&E quickly fixed the problem on-site," she said.

Or when the Grateful Dead came to town in 1985 and turned Columbia into a hippie campground, with some visitors even bathing in the fountains at The Mall in Columbia.

Or when Jackson Browne recorded "Running on Empty" at Merriweather and at a local hotel. Or when Frank Sinatra handed a backstage guard some cash for good work. And don't get her started on the joys of watching Tim McGraw play pickup basketball without a shirt.

On show days, Parker often works from 10 a.m. to 3 the next morning. She's in charge of everything from making sure the artists are happy with their food to guaranteeing that everyone is safe at the show.

"Every time we have a show, it's like putting on a party in your own house," said Parker, who graduated from the University of Maryland in 1982 with a degree in computer science.

She loves problem-solving on the fly. "You see everything happen from start to finish," she said. "You see everything, and you're involved in every piece of the process."

Davey Knott, Merriweather's operation manager, described Parker as "very even-keeled."

He said: "Even when she's possibly griping at you about something, it never feels like she is. It's just, `We have this problem. What can we do?' I've never really heard her raise her voice. You couldn't ask for a better boss."

One of the only cancellations Parker can remember came in the late 1970s, when Donna Summer had to back out at the last minute because of a voice problem.

But problems more typically revolve around negotiations with performers, about food or the condition of the dressing rooms or the financial arrangements.

Years ago, she said, artists would take a percentage of the box office. Now, they take a very high percentage, or they require a guaranteed amount of money. Much time is spent figuring out how to promote specific shows to bring in the maximum crowd for the venue, which has a total capacity of 19,418, without spending too much money, she said.

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